Happy 50th anniversary to the Dewey's sit-in
by Marc Stein
Fifty years ago this week, three teenagers initiated a sit-in at Dewey's Restaurant in Philadelphia to protest multiple denials of service to "homosexuals," "masculine women," "feminine men," and "persons wearing non-conformist clothing." Drum magazine, which by 1965 had become the most popular gay and lesbian movement publication in the United States, called it "the first sit-in of its kind in the history of the United States."
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of these events, OutHistory, the award-winning queer history website, is launching an exhibit on the Dewey's Restaurant sit-ins and demonstrations, which began on April 25, 1965, and ended a week later on May 2. For the first time, the public will have easy access to the flier that was distributed by activists outside Dewey's, the news story that was published in Drum, the reports that appeared in the newsletter of Philadelphia's Janus Society, and a letter to the editor of Drum that referenced denials of service at Dewey's. The exhibit also features photographs of Dewey's and excerpts of oral history transcripts that discuss the restaurant and the protests.
What exactly happened 50 years ago? We do not know if the Dewey's protesters were white, black, both, or neither, but it seems safe to assume that they were inspired by the sit-in movement that was launched by African American college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. There were several Dewey's restaurants in Center City, Philadelphia, but the ones on 13th and 17th streets had especially significant LGBT patronage. The 17th Street Dewey's, which is where the sit-in took place, was located near a large number of bars, clubs, coffeehouses, restaurants, and parks that were popular with LGBT people. The oral histories featured on OutHistory make clear that the Dewey's restaurants on 13th and 17th streets were frequented in the 1950s and 1960s by a racially diverse group of patrons, including LGBT and non-LGBT people, drag queens, and sex workers.
The reports published in 1965 indicate that three teenagers – two male and one female – began the sit-in after more than 150 people were denied service at Dewey's. After a restaurant manager contacted the police, the three teens were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct. Clark Polak, a local gay activist who was the president of the Janus Society and the editor of Drum, offered to help obtain a lawyer for the three protesters, at which point he also was arrested for disorderly conduct. Janus activists and their supporters quickly organized a five-day demonstration outside the restaurant, distributing 1,500 fliers to passersby. On May 2, after Dewey's denied service to three additional customers, they staged a second sit-in. This time, the police made no arrests and the patrons left the restaurant after several hours. Janus activists later proudly reported that the sit-ins and demonstrations were successful in bringing about "an immediate cessation to all indiscriminate denials of service," preventing additional arrests, and showing the "homosexual community" that "we were prepared to intercede in helping to solve these problems."
The documents that will be made available on OutHistory make clear that the 1965 Dewey's sit-in deserves to be remembered as an important episode in gay, lesbian, trans, queer, and U.S. history. One source was quoted in Drum as saying that "the trouble began ... when a small group of rowdy teenagers began using the restaurant for a meeting and camping home." The magazine referred to the restaurant's "refusal to serve a large number of homosexuals and persons wearing non-conforming clothing." The Janus Society concluded its report by declaring, "All too often, there is a tendency to be concerned with the rights of homosexuals as long as they somehow appear to be heterosexual, whatever that is. The masculine woman and the feminine man often are looked down upon by the official policy of homophile organizations, but the Janus Society is concerned with the worth of an individual and the manner in which she or he comports himself. What is offensive today we have seen become the style of tomorrow, and even if what is offensive today remains offensive tomorrow to some persons, there is no reason to penalize such non-conformist behavior unless there is direct anti-social behavior connected it."
In a letter to the editor published in Drum a few months after the magazine reported on the sit-in, D.E. of New York recalled, "I, too, was not served at Dewey's. ... Four girls and I had just come from services at church, planning to eat breakfast. None of us had ever been to Philly before but were told: 'Don't you remember last night? I told you then we don't serve you people here.'"
Fifty years later, OutHistory (http://outhistory.org/) is encouraging all of "you people" to remember the many days and nights that inspired new waves of gay, lesbian, trans, and queer resistance in the 1960s.
Marc Stein is a professor of history at San Francisco State University and the author of City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves (2000), Sexual Injustice (2010), and Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement (2012).